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By the middle 1960s England's Hammer films were working to diversify their product and maximize their gains. American investment in co-productions would continue in deals made with 20th-Fox, Warners and MGM. But Hammer's straight horror movies were their only real success story, as most of the company's psycho-thrillers and adventure movies didn't hit big on U.S. shores. Spreading out into other areas of fantasy, Hammer had two solid hits with 1967's One Million Years B.C., and, earlier, this action-oriented remake of H. Rider Haggard's She, first written in 1886. She, a fantastic adventure about an immortal white queen in a lost city, must have fired the imagination of the pulp fiction world; exotic adventure franchises from Tarzan to Lost Horizon owe it a great debt. Written over thirty years later, Pierre Benoit's highly popular tale L'atlantide was clobbered with a plagiarism suit over a number of striking similarities.
She was remade more than once as a silent film until Merian C. Cooper produced what's pretty much considered the definitive version at RKO in 1935. Despite qualities much appreciated now, it didn't fare well and was considered a failure. That Hammer Films undertook a remake wasn't unusual, as the company had made its name with film versions of radio and TV shows; its core gothic horror hits were licensed from Universal. Ursula Andress was first signed in 1963 but the show had to wait when Universal backed out of its distribution deal.
She is a showcase for sixties' beauty Andress, who had become an immediate international star after slinking out of a Jamaican lagoon in a white bikini in the first Bond film, Dr. No. Rarely showing any great acting skill, 1 Andress is optimum casting for the role of "Ayesha, She Who Must Be Obeyed": most of her scenes require her to stand like a statue and purr sweet nothings to her lover, promising "everything you can imagine, Leo". That was more than enough to keep the attention of the male audience in 1965.
H. Rider Haggard's story is set in darkest Africa, while the '35 film locates the lost city of Kor to northern Siberia. Screenwriter David T. Chantler sets Hammer's "Kuma" somewhere in the deserts of the Middle East. We begin in Palestine right after the WW1 armistice; war buddies Leo Vincey, Holly and Job (John Richardson, Peter Cushing & Bernard Cribbins) are enjoying the night life in a cabaret when they're approached by the sultry Ustane (Rosenda Monteros of The Magnificent Seven). Ustane is acting as an agent for Ayesha (Andress), who instantly recognizes the blonde, handsome Leo as the reincarnation of her lover Kallikrates -- who she murdered for infidelity 2,000 years ago. On the evidence of a map and a ring, which Holly identifies as an authentic and priceless piece of antiquity, the trio crosses the desert and eventually joins up with Ustane, who has fallen in love with Leo. Ustane's father Haumeid (Andre Morell, voiced by George Pastell) rules a black tribe guarding the entrance to the Lost City of Kuma. The three adventurers become guests of the haughty Queen, who executes some of the natives and plans to do away with Ustane out of pure jealousy. But Leo is entranced, especially when Ayesha shows him the preserved remains of Kallikrates and inspires him with the promise of eternal youth in her arms. The Queen has a secret chamber where burns a sacred fire, and all Leo need do to become immortal is to step into the cold flame. Watching all of this is Billali (Christopher Lee), Ayesha's loyal high priest. After a few talks with Holly, Billali begins to consider breaking his vows and entering the flames as well.
She works because it's centered on the star aura of Ursula Andress. Considered by many to be an ideal of feminine beauty, Andress's ample charms encourage the males in the audience to weigh the proposition offered to Leo Vincey: if he gives up a little freedom (including his 20th-century identity) he'll become a demigod mated to the ultimate woman. That's an interesting idea to ponder, for the average guy who marries a girl and then wonders why all the dreams of pop songs and romantic movies fail to kick in. Although disparaged as an actor John Richardson must have made a big impression on casting directors; he became the (mostly forgotten) drone mate for three of the hottest femmes fantastiques of the 1960s: Andress, Barbara Steele and Raquel Welch. Richardson's face is the kind that might belong on an ancient coin. A careful listen will reveal that his entire vocal performance was post-dubbed. In the echo-y set in Palestine, Cushing and Cribbins' voices cut in with strong presence background noise from the set. Richardson's lines are crystal clean, having been recorded later in the studio. Ms. Andress's entire role was re-voiced as well, but the match is so good that we hardly notice -- the talented Monica Van Der Syl even mimicked the star's Swiss accent.
Peter Cushing and Bernard Cribbins seem to be tempering their performances, so as not to overpower the less arresting performers around them. Both are at ease with the expositional dialogue that ponders the seeming magic by which Leo seems to know the way to the legendary Kuma, and scoffs at the notion that Ayesha could really be thousands of years old. The overly literal script slows things down with unnecessary explanations for things we already understand quite well -- most of the narrative surprises are revealed back in Palestine, before the adventure proper gets underway.
Cushing's best scenes are with his old pal Christopher Lee, if only because neither is playing a monster. Lee's Billali looks disturbed when Holly makes light of the priest's ancestors, all rotted corpses lined up like Guanajuato mummies, with a pointedly empty alcove waiting to receive Billali when he dies. We're told that Christopher Lee was upset when his role was cut down; he and Ayesha were originally scripted to sing a chant to the assembled court. It's easy to imagine Billali's unhappy face as reflecting Lee's anger that he's yet again been given short shrift by the Hammer brass. Billali's eleventh-hour attempt to get in on the immortality hot-tub experience is thus one of the story's high points. The priest is a faithful admirer of Ayesha and the only one in the story who seems to deserve a reward.
Hammer-philes can point to She as sort of a reverse Dracula: Ayesha made a "deal" with supernatural forces long in the past, and never dies. Alternately known as "She Who Waits", the ageless queen takes out her frustration on luckless natives and whatever unlucky dame wanders into the picture -- as in a Joan Crawford movie, there's no room in Kuma for upstart competitors. And Ayesha's end (written before Bram Stoker needed a good play to spice up his theater season) is remarkably like Dracula's -- what them Gods done give, they gosh darn take away, and with a wicked sense of timing, too. Ursula Andress's appeal is all sex with little of the wispy ethereal romanticism of RKO's Helen Gahaghan, and thus less of a tragic figure. That quality gets passed along to Richardson's Leo, a rather nice twist for the audience to ponder on the way out.
Somewhat lost in this construction is Rosenda Monteros' Ustane, a character much reduced from the fine role played by Helen Mack in 1935. Ustane is never a serious choice for the vain Leo, and suffers considerably for it. A story of an uppity Queen who gets her just (dust?) desserts, She isn't as misogynistic as one might think. For every grand dame throwing her weight around, there's an innocent victimized by a hopeless commitment to Love.
She isn't the kind of Hammer film that could be filmed at their tiny Bray Studios; it's likely that the MGM connection provided more upscale facilities at the pricey stage rentals at ABPC Elstree. Although the production values can't touch the earlier RKO film the movie can boast attractive sets and good location filming in Israel's Negev desert for the trek sequences. Andress sports a number of killer gowns but the overall good costume work is undermined by the choice of off-the-rack Roman pieces for Ayesha's palace guard.
Director Robert Day (Corridors of Blood) handles the dramatic scenes while stunt arrangers seem to be in control of the battles with Arab nomads and the climactic revolt of Haumeid's native contingent. These fights are okay even when they betray the fact that Kuma is sketched with a fraction of the extras used in the cheapest Italian sword 'n' sandal pix of the time. The budget doesn't stretch much farther than the nice throne room set. The special effects are limited to a few ambitious matte paintings that don't work as well as those in the better-designed RKO show, even though the earlier work sometimes looked like charcoal drawings!
I don't know if She was trimmed for American screens because I never saw it new -- it played only at the Drive-Ins in my town, and at 13 years of age I wasn't driving yet. The opening cabaret scene's belly dancer wears a revealing costume that I can't believe would have played in San Bernardino, but perhaps I wasn't seeing as many sexy movies as I should have been. Just the same, it's fun watching Peter Cushing jumping to his feet to dance up close with the babes -- he does a service to the glamour-challenged historian-archaeologist profession!
The Warner Archives Collection on-demand DVD-R of the 1965 She is a good encoding of a reasonably good enhanced transfer probably dating back ten years. As covered in Warners' disclaimers, dirt and speckling are more visible than one would expect from a mainstream DVD release. Colors are acceptable for a picture that has clearly not been re-mastered from original elements. Browns, golds and flesh tones sort of blend in with each other, leaving Ursula Andress's most impressive feathered gown and golden headdress looking a little drab. Other than that the picture is fine. Most of Harry Waxman's anamorphic cinematography is inexpressive high-key work that detracts from the story's air of mystery while making Andress look supremely attractive.
Some distorted shots gave rise to web snipers complaining that the entire transfer is a botch job, that it's a 1:85 transfer stretched out to fill the 2:35 aspect ratio, etc. The fact is that She, a CinemaScope film, 2 suffers from problems with the CinemaScope "mumps". The offending distorted shots are all close-ups of medallions and a few faces filmed at very close range; either the lens was poorly set-up or just couldn't be that close to the subject without squashing things out a bit. So the medallion looks slightly oval on the horizonal axis, as do some choker close-ups. Note that Ms. Andress's single shots never get too tight, probably because the cameramen gave them extra care. Oddly, one of the mattes of a giant statue looks kind of squashed out as well, but there are many reasons why that could occur -- maybe the optical printer operator had to adjust it to make the matte fit properly (?).
With the exception of one brief patch the audio track is clear, which is good news for fans of composer James Bernard. His score has a terrific theme for Ayesha that fills in the romance and mystery sometimes lacking in the film's visuals. Bernard's desert safari theme is excellent as well, suggesting the optimistic sense of classic adventure that She recaptured for new audiences.
Like most Warner Archives collection discs, She is also available as a digital download.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Although Andress certainly did have her moments, mostly in smaller pictures, she's seductive and funny in the little known crime caper Perfect Friday.
2. Some sources say it was filmed in Megascope or Hammerscope, Hammer-specific terms used for various leased or rented anamorphic lens systems. One pan in the Kuma throne room shows how warped the visual field is in the main lens -- the room distorts in waves as it passes in front of the anamorphic lens element.
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